Advice Beyond ‘Read a Lot, Write a Lot’ #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

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One of the things that bothered me most about published author’s responses to the question “How do you get better at writing?” was that it never seemed to branch away from “Read, read, read” and “Write, write, write.”

…And?

As a struggling teenage writer, I wanted specific advice, a game plan to make me feel like I was making solid, notable progress.

If you’re struggling right now, I’m here for you.  Here’s the kind of advice I would’ve found useful when I was seventeen and wondering whether I should even be a writer.

Going beyond “Read a lot”

Read critically.  

When you’re reading, take a moment to ask yourself what works for you, then pick apart why it’s working.  And then, what helped me the most was, what would you do differently?

I believe that identifying what works for you and why is essential to growing as a writer and storyteller.  And then asking “What would I do differently here” engages your creative self.  From critical thinking comes creativity.

If you can’t stand that book, good.

Books you can’t stand are just as valuable as the ones you love.  Perhaps even more so because identifying why a book sucks is easier than pinning down why you love it.  Also, the crucial question of “What would I do differently here?” suddenly explodes into a list a hundred bullets long when your emotions are running wild.

Many of my favorite projects have come from books I would have written differently.  Reading “bad books” forces my muse out of the shadows and into the open.  Let me tell you, my muse’s indignation of a horribly executed idea is a fearsome (if extremely fruitful) thing.

Read widely, in genre and form.

This was not something I took to easily as a teenager.  I didn’t develop an appreciation for forms other than novels (and specifically YA novels) until I got to college, and I think my writing stagnated during my teenage years because of it.

While it’s important to read within the field you wish to write, exposure to other forms (and following the same process of “What works, why does it work, what would I do differently”) opens you up to entirely new realms of thinking.

So pick up non-fiction, like a biography. (May I recommend Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford?) Watch some spoken word poetry. (Here’s the lovely Sarah Kay if you haven’t seen her performance already.)  Take a dip into crime fiction or high fantasy.  Open yourself to other ways of writing and storytelling.

Going beyond “Write a Lot”

One of the things that bothered me most as a teenager was feeling like I didn’t have a process.  Or, at least, my “process” didn’t look like anyone else’s process. And that made me insanely paranoid that I was doing something wrong.

I want to go into more detail about this in a future post, but for now, the rule of thumb is: take what works, abandon what doesn’t.

This is how you find your process.  By trying everything.  Try other writers’ processes.  You may find that what works for them will also work for you.

If you read how one writer writes their entire first draft freehand, and you’ve never tried it, give it a go.  If you find that it’s a chore and you aren’t getting any noticable results out of it, OR–most tellingly–if you completely forget about the notebook entirely, ditch it.

I saw on one of Alexandra Bracken’s InstaStories that she uses a candle for every project because she read in college that smell is your strongest sense and if you study with a certain smell and then smell it during a test, you’ll more accurately remember what you studied.  So, in order to sink deeper into her world, she lights a candle while she writes.

I tried it.  Doesn’t really work for me.  But it was fun to try.  I got some lovely candles out of it in time for the leaf-changing season.

A lot of authors use playlists.  I tried it.  I have a playlist for my WiP, but I don’t lean heavily on it.  It was a fun activity, but ultimately, didn’t do much for me.

I made huge strides forward when I found a process that utilizes my love for lists.  I plotted out several stories using a spreadsheet, one scene to each box, divided by chapters and acts.

Now I’m trying fast drafting to get the broad strokes of the story down before filling in finer details with actual prose.

Note: It took me ten years to find out that spreadsheets were something that worked for me.  I’m not saying it’ll take you that long to find your process.  Just keep in mind that process is an ever-evolving thing and while there are certain constants, a lot changes from project to project.  This is normal.

Identify where you want to go and set goals accordingly.

Reflect on how serious you are about writing.  If you’re a hobbyist, your goals will be different from a writer who wants to become a full-time published author.

If you want to be published by the time you’re 30, for example, and your 28th birthday just came around and you still haven’t started something, giving yourself a goal to write every day would be prudent.  But if you’re a weekend novelist, maybe your goal is to write a chapter a week.

In the beginning, copy.  Just don’t copy forever.  Let yourself evolve.  Always evolve.

I want to go more in depth with this in future, but the sum of it is: I believe that copying styles you admire is a valuable learning tool.  It’s a tangible, hands-on way of employing what you’ve recognized as Good Stuff.  You aren’t promising to marry this style, to use it faithfully and always.  Have a fling with it!  A good, old-fashioned, healthy one-night stand.  And when you’re done, give it a coy wave over your shoulder and move onto the next one.

The value in this is that you will come away from it with something you hadn’t known before.  You’ve practiced a different way to approach a scene, a certain snarky tone of voice, an approach to dialogue or chapter endings.  In the same way you learn your process, when you practice another author’s style, you take what works, you abandon what doesn’t.

Get over yourself.

This took me years to get to, and I’m still dealing with how to create alongside my fear of creating crap.  But.  Everyone knows you have to produce a ton of crap to grow any daisies.

Everyone sucks in the beginning–everyone.  Your “shitty writing” is not unique.

I spent years hearing this, but the best way I’ve heard so far is by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic.  Consider this:

Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture.  I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending.  My fear was a song with only one note–only one word, actually–and that word was “STOP!”  My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop:  “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”

Which means that my fear always made predictably boring decisions, like a choose-your-own-ending book that always had the same ending: nothingness.

I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. […] There’s nothing particularly compelling about that.  Do you see what I mean?  You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown.

Your ego in this matter is not worth your time.  Your ego is helpful in many ways, but when it comes to creating things, it can take a seat in the back and sulk while you have your fun.

And also consider this: If the risk is that you’ll get to the end of the day and have nothing, wouldn’t you rather just create something, even if you consider that something crappy?


I hope this helps!  My wish for you is that you persevere in your writing practice, that you approach creativity with an open heart and open mind, and that you write something today.

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My Top 5 Writers to Study for Style #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

photo credit: Lonely Planet on Unsplash

Google has failed me. I cannot for the life of me track down who said this, or indeed, to check whether I’m even remembering the wording correctly, but I swear to you that someone, somewhere once said, “Read good books and good books will come out of you.” (If you happen to find the attribute for that quote, by the way, please leave a comment!)

There is a connection between what you consume and what you produce.

I believe that, by nature, humans are imitative beasts. Isn’t this the whole “monkey see, monkey do” thing?

Well, if you’re like me, you learn by example. So if you’re like me, always trying to improve upon your style in order to share a story in the most vivid way possible, with words that will inspire and astound, then I suggest you make yourself comfortable with copying.

Or, if “copying” insults your moral sensibilities, we’ll say “imitate.”

Imitation isn’t just flattery, it’s necessary

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the now-iconic memoir Eat Pray Love, also wrote one of my favorite books on the creative process: Big Magic. If you haven’t read it already and are a creative type, please do yourself a favor and read it.

In her section on “Persistence,” Ms. Gilbert says this about Learning:

Generally speaking, the work did go badly, too. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I felt sometimes like I was trying to carve scrimshaw while wearing oven mitts. Everything took forever. I had no chops, no game. It could take me a whole year just to finish one tiny short story. Most of the time, all I was doing was imitating my favorite authors, anyhow. I went through a Hemingway stage (who doesn’t?), but I also went through a pretty serious Annie Proulx stage and a rather embarrassing Cormac McCarthy stage. But that’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, page 142

I highlighted that line in my copy: “That’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.”

Imitating your favorites is part of the learning process. It just is.

Experimenting allows you to see what works for you and what doesn’t. When you imitate, you instinctively change things that don’t work for you and substitute things that do. The more you do this, the closer and closer you get to your own voice.

The good thing here? You can write like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or whoever floats your boat. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get published sounding like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. By the time you go through the whole process of drafting a book, revising a book, polishing a book, pitching a book, selling a book, then editing a book, it will look completely different from when you first started with a ripped off first line.

So write like the ones who inspire you!

My favorite writers (for style study)

I separate writing from storytelling.

Storytelling is the plot stuff, the character stuff, the things you tell people when they ask what the book you’re reading is about.

Writing, on the other hand, is the style stuff. It’s the voice stuff. It’s the “wow this feels like magic” stuff.

These two things, of course, go hand in hand. Bad writing can absolutely ruin a brilliant story and no amount of talented writing can save a crappy story.

So when I have the story part of it but I’m struggling with the writing part of it (which, let’s be honest, is always the case for me), here are the writers I turn to for inspiration and guidance:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Far and away one of my all-time favorite books, Maggie Stiefvater puts words together in ways I never would have thought of. Her images are evocative and atmospheric, creating the aesthetic of the island of Thisby from the first page.

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, page 1

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

I didn’t appreciate Laini Taylor’s writing as much when I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but when I read Strange the Dreamer, it took my breath away with its swift, concise images. Laini Taylor paints her world behind my eyelids, I swear.

On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

Her skin was blue, her blood was red.

She broke over an iron gate, crimping it on impact, and there she hung, impossibly arched, graceful as a temple dancer swooning on a lover’s arm. One slick finial anchored her in place. Its point, protruding from her sternum, glittered like a brooch. She fluttered briefly as her ghost shook loose, and torch ginger buds rained out of her long hair.

Later, they would say these had been hummingbird hearts and not blossoms at all.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, page 1

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

I’ve read several of Lauren Oliver’s books now, but despite how I’ve enjoyed each of them, I don’t own any of her books. When the paperback of Broken Things releases next week, I’m going to go get my copy because the opening chapter blows me away every time.

Five years ago, when I had just turned thirteen, I killed my best friend.

I chased her down and cracked her over the head with a rock. Then I dragged her body out of the woods and into a field and arranged it in a center of a circle of stones I’d placed there with my other friend, Mia. Then we knifed her twice in the throat and five times in the chest. Mia was planning to douse her body with gasoline and light her on fire, but something went wrong and we bolted instead.

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, page 4

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

I either read somewhere or was told that besides being a novelist, Natalie Lloyd is also a poet. Even if I misheard or misremembered, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it were true because Natalie Lloyd’s prose is nothing short of poetic.

“They say all the magic is gone up out of this place,” said Mama.

She looked straight ahead as she drove, past the white beam of our headlights, deep into the night, like she could see exactly what was up ahead of us. I could see anything, though: not a house, not a store, not even an old barking dog. A big fat moon, pale white and lonesome-looking, was our only streetlight. I watched the way the moonlight painted her profile: the dark shadows under her cheekbones, the tight pull of her mouth. I didn’t need to see her eyes to know how they’d look: sky blue and beautiful. Full of all the sadness in the world.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, page 1

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I first learned I’d have to read The Hobbit for my Fantasy Classics class this past spring semester, I was a little nervous. I’d tried reading it in high school and was bored to tears ten pages in. But reading The Hobbit as an adult, I was pleasantly–well, nothing short of astounding, really. (Plot twist: I did not enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring hardly at all. I struggled hard with the writing in that one.)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, page 3

Your favorites are not my favorites

I highly recommend that you compile a list of books whose writing style inspires you, even if you didn’t necessarily like the storytelling. Usually, these two things will go hand in hand as I said before, but not always. For example, since Lauren Oliver doesn’t really write the kind of high fantasy stories I prefer, I read her mostly for her exquisite writing style. (Though that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the stories while I’m reading. Broken Things was particularly engrossing.)

This is a very personal exercise because there is no one standard of excellence: it is all subjective, and what appeals to me will not necessarily appeal to you. I place a very high premium on writing styles that use longer sentences and create atmospheric images. But you may prefer something punchier, with more interjections from the main character acknowledging the presence of the reader. Find what works for you and don’t let anyone make you feel embarrassed about it.

What to do when you’ve got your favorites

This is when having an English degree pays off, let me tell you. But you don’t have to have a degree in English Lit to be able to analyze your own feelings and responses to a book.

I very much recommend that you start reading with a pencil in hand. When I read a book, I keep a pencil nearby and when the writing is particularly grabbing, I underline the sentence/phrase/paragraph that caught me.

Obviously exercise restraint if you’re reading a library book or someone else’s copy or if it’s a book you’re planning on selling soon.

Pay attention to what grabs you and start putting those structures into your own writing.

Deliberately write a short piece in the style of one of your favorite writers. No one has to see it. Just write it and see what happens, how it feels. You’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t: take what works, abandon what doesn’t.

And don’t be afraid that you won’t find your own voice. Trust me. You will. You just have to stick with it.

I’ll leave you with this:

It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: If I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.

Instead, I learned how to write.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, page 143